PODCAST: Yeshua in Context – The Handwashing Dispute

The Yeshua in Context book, audiobook, and eBook is due for release in August 2010. I plan to publish a sourcebook as well with lists, charts, and further resources for study. In this podcast, I set up the problems in Mark 7 and present a few clues toward a better reading of the story. In the book I will present a holistic reading of the story.

In Mark 7 we have a story about another dispute between Yeshua and those in Israel who saw themselves as the Torah teachers of the future. In Yeshua’s time, the Pharisees were a small movement and, in spite of many studies which have failed to grasp this, their influence was not yet broad over the Jewish communities in Israel or the diaspora. The days of rabbinic dominance in Judaism would not come for centuries.

No matter how we read the story in Mark 7 we’re bound to run into problems. We will encounter problems of our modern context, of centuries of Christian readings, of historical understanding, of coherence, of translation, of theology, and not least of spirituality.

In terms of our modern context, we are prone to think in terms of Judaism and Christianity in recent history. We are handicapped by the pervasive idea of many centuries that Judaism and Christianity are mutually exclusive. It is all too easy to read Yeshua as the representative of Christianity which is superseding Judaism. There could also be a Jewish reading of the story, a non-messianic reading, which equally misses the point. We will attempt a reading that reflects Judaism in Yeshua’s time and at the same time takes seriously his messianic claims.

A problem less often considered is that centuries of Christian readings have ignored a crucial fact of the story. Yeshua did practice ritual handwashing. We conclude this because his questioners ask why “some of his disciples” ate with unwashed hands. It seems Yeshua did not. This is one of several factors in the story that undercuts any reading which finds Jewish traditions to be contradictory to Yeshua’s message.


(1) If you have iTunes, search Yeshua in the iTunes store and subscribe.

(2) If you don’t use iTunes, go to this link at derekleman.com.

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Bible, Christian, Judaism, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism, Sacrifices and Purity, Yeshua and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to PODCAST: Yeshua in Context – The Handwashing Dispute

  1. judeoxian says:

    Great summary. Overall, I agree with your perspective that what Yeshua was not criticizing the ritual itself, but rather the lack of inner holiness in his opponent’s hearts. It was internal Jewish dialogue, not Christianity overturning Judaism.

    There are a few things you stated that raised questions for me. First, on a more basic level, what is the reason or theology behind handwashing? What does it do? Was handwashing in the first century different from handwashing post-destruction? It is an innovation, or a legitimate command of the Torah?

    Second, I’m not so convinced that “some of his disciples did not wash” necessarily implies that other disciples and even Yeshua himself did wash. Matthew omits the qualifier “some.” And if one receives criticism about one’s disciples, it is really a criticism of their Master, i.e. “You haven’t taught them properly.” Yeshua seems to defend their not washing. At the very least, he does not correct his disciples.

    But I still want to emphasize that I still appreciated much of what you said. Especially the bit from the Letter of Aristeas, that handwashing was not limited to just the circle of the Pharisees.

    I’ve never really been able to put everything in this passage together. For me, it has lacked coherence. This has helped put a few pieces back together.

  2. “Yeshua did practice ritual handwashing. We conclude this because his questioners ask why “some of his disciples” ate with unwashed hands. It seems Yeshua did not.”

    In Luke 11:37-38 we have a direct example of Yeshua HIMSELF sitting down to eat WITHOUT first washing his hands:

    “When Yeshua had finished speaking, a Pharisee invited him to eat with him; so he went in and reclined at the table. But the Pharisee, noticing that Yeshua did not first wash before the meal, was surprised.”

    Now, the above is not a conclusive proof that Yeshua NEVER ritualistically washed his hands before eating, as it appears that he had committed this provocative omission specifically to elicit a certain reaction on the part of his Pharisee host. He deliberately created a situation that would aid him in launching yet another condemnation of superficial observances that do nothing to affect the inner person.

  3. Gene:

    Yes, it is true Yeshua did not believe handwashing was compulsory and did not always do it. However, here is how I would express Yeshua’s problem with his generation (differently than your expression: “superficial observances that do nothing to affect the inner person”): his problem was with a kind of spirituality that emphasized expanding purity rituals and in so doing eclipsed greater values of ethics and godliness.


    It is not essential to my argument whether Yeshua ever practiced or routinely practiced handwashing. I’d prefer a clean “he did not,” and it would not affect my interpretation of the passage on the whole. However, I felt the evidence was compelling that he did practice. So I tried to incorporate that and speculated what rationale he might have had for doing so. I can’t imagine he would support the idea that impurity could be ingested, since he teaches the opposite. So, I surmise that he saw the practice as a valid way of honoring God’s holiness, bringing a holiness practice into the home, without advocating fear of ingesting impurity.


  4. tandi119 says:

    “In Yeshua’s time, the Pharisees were a small movement and, in spite of many studies which have failed to grasp this, their influence was not yet broad over the Jewish communities in Israel or the diaspora. The days of rabbinic dominance in Judaism would not come for centuries.”

    Derek, I find this statement about the less than extensive influence of the Pharisees very interesting and important. Can you cite references or recommend a resource to study this further? Also, who determined how far a sabbath day’s journey was in those days, and did it apply to Galileans?

  5. Tandi:

    I will blog about “The Problem of Christian Rabbinic Mythology” and post it tomorrow morning.

    I was working on a blog post to answer your question and my wife said, “Isn’t blogging kind of like work? And isn’t today a Yom Tov (holiday Sabbath)?”

    I said, “Well, blogging is fun and no one pays me for it.”

    She looked at me with those “do you believe your own boloney” eyes and I realized, I shouldn’t be writing articles on a Yom Tov. For now, let me just say: Shaye Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah and E.P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief, will give a much more realistic picture of Judaism in the time of Yeshua based on current scholarship.

    More tomorrow. And may everyone enjoy this seventh day of Pesach!


  6. J teaches people in a time of disease and no toilet paper, not to wash their hands. He literally endorses filth. Sorry if this sounds rude but your god is filthy. My G-d is Holy. When missionaries like yourself associate your filthy god with our Holy G-d by playing Jewish, you insult Judaism and the Jewish G-d.

  7. Derek Leman says:


    I think that you do not know what ritual handwashing (netillat yadayim) is. Either that or you do not know how to wash your hands after using the bathroom. You see, they are two very different things. In netillat yadayim, we pour a trickle of water over the wrist and down onto the hand, twice for each hand. It does not remove germs or filth. It removes ritual impurity.

    I do hope you use soap and scrub your hands after using the bathroom. If you are not sure how to wash your hands, most fast food restaurants have signs posted in the bathroom with pictures and instructions. Maybe I could make a YouTube video for you to teach you how :-)

  8. Emet Banak says:

    Shalom Derek :-)
    Do you have more resources in this subject then your book?
    Eugene :-)

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